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Overcoming the Dangers of Intense Religiosity
BASED ON THE TEACHINGS OF
THE REBBEIM OF CHABAD
זצוקללה"ה נבג"מ זי"ע
Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver
Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5773
Contents Careful Emotions ............................................................................. 2 Angelic Waste ................................................................................... 5 Fortifying the Foundation ............................................................... 7 Modern Misguidedness.................................................................. 10
Whoa. Take it easy. Is it good to be passionate and intense about goodness and holiness? Yes, undoubtedly. In fact, we are commanded to strive for this state, and not only is one who lacks passion neglectful, but he is at great risk of sliding into sin, for spiritual coldness and apathy lead one to all manner of evil, may Hashem save us. Yet one must also take precautions to ensure that this intensity of feeling not go overboard and manifest itself inappropriately. The goal of learning about Hashem‘s greatness is that this knowledge inspire one to genuine feelings for Hashem—middos (emotions) of ahavah ve’yirah, love and awe of Hashem. Then instead of simply going through the motions—known as “Mitzvas anoshim melumadah”—one‘s heart will be in it:
Not only will he no longer view Mitzvos as an odious chore, but since he knows that performing the Mitzvos draws him into a close connection with Hashem, he eagerly looks
forward to the opportunity to fulfill them, and does so with great gusto and joy.
Likewise, his awareness that sin separates and distances him from Hashem makes the very thought of sinning repulsive and motivates him to do his utmost to avoid falling in sin.
The Torah states that this process of inner change is the mission of every single Jew. To explain, Chassidus teaches that Hashem ―made this one,‖ Kelipah, spiritual impurity, ―opposite this one,‖1 Kedushah, holiness. Kelipah and Kedushah parallel each other. The same is true of the emotions that stem from these two cosmic forces, respectively: The unworthy emotions of the Bestial Soul parallel the worthy emotions of the Divine Soul. When one succeeds in this process of transforming one‘s emotions, the holy emotions replace the unholy ones. In this state, love of physicality is replaced by its counterpart in holiness, love of Hashem. Fear related to one‘s physical life (e.g., fear of pain, poverty, shame, and so on) is replaced with fear of Hashem. However,2 by their very nature, emotions are egotistical. This holds true not only of the undesirable or at least selfish emotions of the Bestial Soul, but even of the holy emotions of the Neshamah, the Divine Soul.
Mishlei 7:14. 2 The section below is based on the Rebbe Rashab‘s Sefer HaMaamarim 5660, pp. 8-9; Sefer HaMaamarim 5670, pp. 103-104.
Emotions are all about personal feelings and desires. One could desire to indulge in hedonistic pursuits or to attach oneself to the loftiest heights of holiness—either way, the ego is involved. Although in the latter case it is expressed in a constructive and virtuous way, it is still necessarily present. This is especially the case when the emotion is felt tangibly. An emotion could be present but not felt, for it lies under the surface.3 But when an emotion is tangibly felt, there is a strong egotistical component even in the holy emotions, and this is bad. This creates the serious danger that when the emotion is expressed, it may devolve into its counterpart in Kelipah. I will provide a handful of more common examples, with the caveat that this is only a very brief treatment of such behaviors, for this process can manifest itself in numerous forms: Love: Love involves opening up and transcending limitations for the object of one‘s love. So when love of Hashem goes awry, one loses a sense of boundaries, and then openness to and love of Hashem degenerate into dangerous openness and evil love— material indulgence and forbidden pleasures. For instance, during prayer the Jew becomes aroused with passionate love for Hashem. After prayer, the intense feeling remains, but it becomes expressed in a more intense desire to indulge the senses, e.g., gluttonous eating. Fear: Fear drives one to create limits and boundaries out of a sense of caution. So when fear of Hashem goes awry, the person becomes so filled with fiery passion or with a sense of selflimitation and inhibition gone too far that he succumbs to the
Cf. Tanya ch. 16.
negative emotions of the Bestial Soul. He may break out in sudden anger, sink into depression, inflict pain and torment upon others, or the like. Another manifestation of this egotistical element of fear of Hashem is when the person shows off his intense desire to avoid sin. Even when he has no conscious desire to do so, and he is simply expressing his genuine emotion of fear of Hashem, the showiness is inappropriate. If his emotions were pure, this selfdisplay would not occur, and this trait stems from his deepseated condition of spiritual coarseness. This is an example of what Chassidus calls yenikah lachitzonim, ―giving sustenance to negative spiritual energies.‖ This means that when something holy lacks purity, it unwittingly gives strength to the forces of Kelipah, with often disastrous and tragic results. This expression is also used more broadly to describe anything good and holy that is done in a foolish, inappropriate, or otherwise inadvisable manner and therefore leads to an unfavorable outcome. In this case, it means that the small element of ego in otherwise worthy and holy feelings is able to be grabbed and used by the evil inclination to feed undesirable emotions.
A parallel phenomenon is found among the angels. As discussed earlier, although the angels possess vastly superior intellect, they are fundamentally emotional beings, whose core is filled with passionate feelings of love and fear of Hashem, and so they are not truly intellectual in the way that man is.
Starting from Beriyah, each level in Seder Hishtalshelus, the spiritual multiverse, devolves directly from the one above it. So Beriyah devolves into Yetzirah, Yetzirah into Asiyah, and the spiritual plane of Asiyah devolves into our physical world, which is at the bottom of the world of Asiyah. This means that all the beings that exist in Beriyah also exist in Yetzirah, but in a lesser, more egotistical state, and so on. So when the intense love and fear of Hashem of the angels in the higher spiritual realms (Yetzirah, Yetzirah into Asiyah—no angels exist in Atzilus, the world above Beriyah) devolves into our physical world, which is the lowest of all levels—―the lowest level possible as regards the concealment of divine light, a double and redoubled darkness to the extent that it is filled with forces of Kelipah and sitra achra, which are literally against Hashem, saying ‗I exist, and there is nothing else but me‘‖4—these feelings go completely awry: The angels‘ love of Hashem turns into chessed (kindness and love) of Kelipah—the lusts and pleasures of the flesh that we (if we are G-d fearing, do our best not to) see in the secular society around us. (Once, Reb Itcheh der Masmid, a great chossid, had to visit the city of Manhattan (in the ‗20s, I think). His comment: “Do hobn di malochim gut ongemacht”—―here the angels really relieved themselves.‖) Likewise, the angels‘ intense fear of Hashem turns into gevurah (strictness and fear) of Kelipah—all the forms of negativity, depression, conflict, hatred, and violence that so pervade the society and culture in which we live.
Tanya ch. 36.
All these powerful and captivating negative energies that we perceive in the world around us are in fact the devolution—or, as Chassidus calls it, the pesoles, the ―waste matter‖—of that intense passion of the angels. However, angels do not have free choice, so they cannot choose to refine themselves in a way that would prevent their passion from leading to anything undesirable. In contrast, although man‘s capacity for emotion is infinitesimal when compared with that of the angels, he was endowed with overcome his emotions. He does this by choosing to choose to use his intellect in a way that refines himself so that his expression of emotions will not result in a negative outcome.
Fortifying the Foundation
Now5 for the big question: How does one avoid falling into this trap? One root cause of spirituality going awry is the lack of the proper foundation of one‘s service of Hashem. To serve Hashem properly it is not enough to eschew hedonism, to think constantly about Hashem, to be spiritual, and to love Hashem. It is not even enough to fear Him. The same goes for fulfilling the Mitzvos that relate to the sphere of interactions with other people: It is not enough for a religious person to be generous and hospitable, to be humble and forgiving, to be devoted and tireless in serving one‘s community. Yes, these are all important and even vital elements of a deep, personal relationship with Hashem. Yet all of them can go awry,
Adapted from Sichos Kodesh 5723, p. 54.
so none of them comprise the very foundation of one‘s relationship with Hashem. The beginning and foundation of serving Hashem is very (and perhaps even deceptively) simple: Kabolas ol Malchus Shomayim, submission to the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven.6 This means that one is in a state of constant submission, such that all one‘s behavior is part of serving Hashem, and is done with the intention of following His wishes. With regard to emotional expression, this means that no emotion or desire, however worthy it may otherwise be, should be expressed exclusively because one feels that way. Rather, even if the emotion coursing through one‘s heart is fully appropriate, one should be conscious of its inner core. This very emotion is part of serving Hashem, for through it one fulfills a divine command—the command to feel certain feelings. For Torah and halacha direct us not only in our actions, but also in proper thoughts and feelings, in ―chovos halevavos—duties of the heart.‖ In this case, not only is it worthy to love and fear Hashem, but in so doing, we fulfill explicit divine commands7 (which are, in fact, Biblical obligations no less binding than the obligation to keep Shabbos or kosher): ―Love Hashem, your G– d‖8 and ―Fear Hashem, your G–d.‖9
Cf. Tanya beg. ch. 41. 7 These are counted in the Six Constant Mitzvos binding on men and women equally, as enumerated in the introduction to Sefer HaChinuch. 8 Devarim 6:5. 9 Ibid. 6:13.
This holds true not only for spontaneous, gut feelings (which are much more likely to be hijacked in the manner described above), but even for feelings that emerged, as they should, from a process of study, comprehension, and hisbonenus (―contemplation‖ or ―meditation‖). For intellect, emotions, and the (very worthy) process of intellect producing emotions all depend upon the firm foundation of Kabolas ol Malchus Shomayim for their success. When a Jew‘s life is based on this foundation, his entire relationship with Hashem is stable and strong, and then he is able to attain success in his spiritual strivings in all areas and on all levels10—intellect, emotions, and thought, speech, and action. Moreover, it ultimately also paves the way for Hashem‘s blessings for material prosperity. If, however, one gets carried away with a passion for a holy pursuit (in whatever area), but lacks the awareness that this feeling is not just self-expression, but a part of serving Hashem and fulfilling a divine command, then no matter how worthy and holy the passion, this person is at high risk. This passion may well devolve into inappropriate feelings and behavior, as explained in the previous posts in this series. Thus, we find how Nadav and Avihu, who yearned to serve Hashem on a high level, were so intent on their desire to offer up the incense in the Mishkan that they did so when they were not supposed to. They then ―came too close to Hashem, and died.‖11 The reason this happened was that their passion to come close to Hashem lacked kabolas ol Malchus Shomayim, the
Cf. Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 1, pp. 104-105. 11 Vayikra 12:1; Ohr HaChaim ad loc.
simultaneous desire to submit to Him, and so it ended tragically. Let us not make the same mistake.
We can also observe the phenomenon of well-meaning but misplaced religious feeling in a contemporary context, and on a far more basic level than described above. Secular attitudes combined with ignorance of and sometimes outright disrespect for Jewish law have led many to follow practices that are in violation of the traditions of our holy Torah. And although these Jews outright reject the tenets, laws, and customs of the Judaism of their ancestors, they bizarrely claim to be following it. E.g., some people become enthusiastic about prayer—which is, indeed, a very sublime Mitzvah—but then pray in a mixed service without a mechitzah, or pray using a liturgy that they made up themselves while rejecting the divinely-inspired, required liturgy formulated millennia ago by the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah. ―Why do the fine points matter so much?‖ they protest. ―The main thing is that we‘re inspired in serving Hashem, and Hashem isn‘t so petty—He loves us and hears us whether we follow a prescribed text or not!‖ One recent high-profile example of this may be the ―Women of the Wall,‖ who insist on their ―right‖ to violate the traditional synagogue laws adhered to at Judaism‘s holiest site, the Kosel. (My hesitation in including them in this category is that it seems that for many of them, their fervor is in fact political, not religious.)
This is comparable to approaching a human king or a prime minister with an impassioned plea that he spare one‘s life, but with the qualification: I know that your majesty has issued certain edicts, but I‘ve decided to flout them: For instance, although I know that you‘ve declared that when we come before you, we should follow the dress code that you prescribe, I don‘t care—I‘ll dress as I please when I come to ask you for a favor. I also know that you‘ve explicitly stated that you want us to present our requests to you using a prescribed text, but I insist on expressing my individuality, and asking you for what I want in my own way. Yet I expect your highness to grant my heartfelt request regardless, because after all, you are so very merciful indeed. How outrageous. What human king would tolerate such a request, never mind accede to it? How much more so is such an attitude completely inappropriate when one approaches the King of all kings, Hashem. In conclusion, on every level, the Jew should be careful to ensure that his spiritual, inspired feelings for Hashem are not expressed inappropriately, whether in the form of somehow mistreating others, or violating Jewish law. He attains this by strengthening his acceptance of Hashem‘s absolute sovereignty and authority— kabolas ol Malchus Shomayim. Then not only will these feelings not result in inappropriate behavior, but they will inspire one to much more careful observance of halacha and much more sincere devotion towards one‘s fellow Jew.
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